Conspicuous Consumption and Veblen

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How far is Thorstein Veblen’s theory, that the main function of dress is the display of wealth, still valid?

Thorstein Veblen was a sociologist and economist who came up with the term ‘conspicuous consumption.’ He was the author of the book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ published in 1899 which spoke about the working class in America. During that time the working class was visibly aspiring to the ‘leisure class.’ The Leisure class was known to be the emerging ruling class of that time, as they would consume and constantly engage in a public display of their status. The following essay is going to explore Veblen’s theory in relation to the display of wealth through dress. I aim to show the relevance of Veblen’s concept today whilst taking into thought the changes in class, consumption and consumerism. Veblen provided a few main ideologies in which he examines the notion of ‘dress’ as an “expression of pecuniary culture” Veblen (1994:15) He stated that the idea of ‘conspicuous waste’ proved the wearer had the freedom to purchase anything they liked without so much as any economical obstacles. Currently, ‘fast fashion’ feeds the desire to overcome need, and clothes are replaced before they are worn out. The seasonality of today’s fashion is the epitome of conspicuous waste as new trends come out every season which encourages one to throw out items that have gone ‘out of fashion.’ Trends are changing faster than ever before (Fig 1). (Tesseras : 2010) states; “textile waste at council tips now accounts for 30 per cent, compared to just seven per cent five years ago.” The thrill of watching each season’s runway shows, to the pressure of ‘joining in’ and following the trends, (Fig 2) fast fashion promotes mass production and waste.

Fig 1 Fig 2

Another principle of Veblen’s, is that of ‘conspicuous leisure’ which he defined as a non-productive use of time. Examples of conspicuous leisure include taking long ’unnecessary’ vacations to exotic places which are fully motivated by a social factor (Fig 3). ”Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” (Veblen 1934 : 43) These are time-consuming activities that suggest an indifference to such mundane concerns as working for a living. (Fig 4) “The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or household duties or social amenities, which prove on analysis to serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not and need not occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use.” (Veblen 1934: 69)

Figure 3 Figure 4

“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability...No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption.”  Veblen (1994 : Chapter 4)

In Veblen’s time during the late 19th century (Fig 5) and early 1900’s (Fig 6) woman’s wear was made to look as far apart from any work-wear as possible. Corsets, delicate fabrics and high heels all were worn to prove that they are entirely restricted from any laborious work and would make manual work very difficult. Affluent women crippled themselves in order to put on a convincing display of idleness, and as he put it made them "permanently and obviously unfit for work.” Veblen (1994: Chapter 7) The tight corsets and luxurious fabrics proved that they could afford to wear impractical clothing which was expensive to clean all for the sole purpose to...
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